Daniel Dennett
Professor of Philosophy and Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University

The Mechanics of Studying Consciousness

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Daniel Dennett Reveals the Mechanics of Studying Consciousness.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett is the author of Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea and is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and has a daughter, a son, and a grandson. He was born in Boston in 1942, the son of a historian by the same name, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1963. He then went to Oxford to work with Gilbert Ryle, under whose supervision he completed the D.Phil. in philosophy in 1965. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since, aside from periods visiting at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

His first book, Content and Consciousness, appeared in 1969, followed by Brainstorms (1978), Elbow Room (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Kinds of Minds (1996), and Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays 1984-1996. Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, was published in 2005. He co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter in 1981 and he is the author of over three hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

Dennett gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987.

He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.


Question: What led you to your ideas about consciousness?Daniel Dennett:   I think that, in a certain sense, I’m an engineer monkey.  If I had a slightly different upbringing or slightly different parenting or something, I think I would have been an engineer.  I’m fascinated with how things work, taking things apart, putting them back together again. So for as long as I can remember, I’ve been puzzling about how consciousness could work. What can be going on in between one’s ears that could explain all of the things that happen?

And what fascinated me, over the years, was that people had some pretty interesting glimmers.  I think well, there’s got to be something right about this bit, and there’s got to be something right about that. So I just began to accumulate those and think about how to put them all together. And of course, I can’t put them all together at any level of detail, but I could sketch out a big picture.  It’s a little bit like what software engineers do when they just work out the specs.  Here are the systems; it can do this, this, and this, and it’s got to be able to do this too.  And they don’t yet know exactly how to build something that has all those competences, but at least they have sketched out what the competences are. 

So I began to make an informal specs list.  This is what consciousness does.  Now, can I imagine ways or can anybody, or has anybody already done it and save me the trouble that consciousness can do this and this? And I think the great power of thinking that way is that it keeps you from just stopping in your tracks, slack jawed and wondering and thinking, “Oh, my gosh! This is just impenetrably fantastically mysterious.”   

I think that’s a very natural attitude. But whenever you feel it you should say, okay, back to work: why is it so wonderful? What does this part of consciousness add to the mix? What does it do? And then what happens? Okay, you had this experience, and then what happens? What can you do because you had that experience that you couldn’t do if you haven’t had that experience? Or what happens in you because you had that experience that wouldn’t happen in you without that experience?

And if you just break the problems down calmly like this. You begin to build up a sense of all the things that need to go on for us to be conscious. 

Now, once you’ve got that list, the mistake is in assuming that after you’ve explained all those, there’s in addition this further part of the hard problem: where does consciousness come in? No that is, that is consciousness.  If conscious isn’t another thing?  It’s all of those tricks.

Recorded March 6, 2009.